Friday Items

Friday Items

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

The FEHBlog apologizes for the fact that his Grammarly program made a hash out of yesterday’s Miscellany post. The FEHBlog discovered and fixed the problems this afternoon if anyone cares to go back to read that post. Lo siento.

Going forward, the FEHBlog will be posting Covid stats on the first Friday of the month. Here is the CDC’s weekly interpretation of its Covid statistics which focuses on a CDC report on Covid mortality dated November 16, 2022, and summarized below:

The Wall Street Journal adds

Uptake of fall Covid-19 booster shots remains anemic well into November, frustrating public-health experts who blame the lackluster interest on pandemic fatigue and insufficient outreach from officials.

About 31 million people in the U.S. have gotten the updated shots, or roughly 10% of people ages five and older, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal government purchased more than 170 million doses of the new bivalent boosters that target two Omicron subvariants and the original virus strain.

“It has been pretty dismal,” said Rupali Limaye, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies vaccine demand and acceptance. * * *

[U]ptake of the modified booster is slow due in part to the limited amount of outreach and type of messaging from health officials, some public-health experts say.

Anecdotally, it sounds like a lot of people are still not aware that the bivalent boosters are available,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University. “If they are, many don’t seem to understand the importance of getting boosted at all—with bivalent or original recipe—and there is a decided lack of urgency in communications about it.” 

Some public-health experts say there must be not just more, but also targeted outreach. Celine Gounder, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said messaging needs to be more targeted at people age 50 and over who are most at risk. Among adults 65 and older, some 27% have gotten an updated booster dose, CDC data show. 

“You should be thinking of who is most vulnerable and target the efforts there,” said Dr. Gounder, an infectious-disease specialist and epidemiologist.

The following are the key points from this week’s CDC Fluview:

  • Seasonal influenza activity is elevated across the country.
  • The majority of influenza viruses detected this season have been influenza A(H3N2) viruses, but the proportion of subtyped influenza A viruses that are A(H1N1) is increasing slightly.
  • Two more influenza-associated pediatric deaths were reported this week, for a total of seven pediatric flu deaths reported so far this season.
  • CDC estimates that, so far this season, there have been at least 4.4 million illnesses, 38,000 hospitalizations, and 2,100 deaths from flu.
  • The cumulative hospitalization rate in the FluSurv-NET system is higher than the rate observed in week 45 during every previous season since 2010-2011.
  • The majority of influenza viruses tested are in the same genetic subclade as and antigenically similar to the influenza viruses included in this season’s influenza vaccine.

Medscape offers expert opinions on the “perfect storm” of rampant flu and RSV.

In OPM news, the agency posted its Fiscal Year 2022 Performance and Accountability report this week. The Director’s response to the Inspector General’s list of top management challenges is worth a gander. That response begins on page 125.

From the No Surprises Act front, Beckers Payer Issues tells us

The No Surprises Act has prevented millions of surprise medical bills since January, according to new data from AHIP and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. 

The payer associations gathered their data, published Nov. 17, by surveying 84 health insurance providers representing around 57 percent of the national market. 

“Thanks to the No Surprises Act, millions of Americans no longer face a complicated, confusing billing bureaucracy, being harassed by collection agencies, or even potential legal action,” AHIP President Matt Eyles said in a press release. 

AHIP and the BCBS Association also surveyed plans for the number of claims submitted to arbitration under the act. They estimated 275,000 claims have been submitted since January 2022, more than the 17,000 claims predicted by government agencies. 

and

AHIP is backing HHS in a lawsuit over surprise billing arbitration from Texas providers, who have support from the largest associations of providers. 

The trade association filed an amicus brief in Texas Medical Association v. HHS on Nov. 16. 

The lawsuit, filed by the Texas Medical Association in September, challenges the arbitration process established under the No Surprises Act. 

The FEHBlog appreciates AHIP’s amicus brief filing. In the FEHBlog’s opinion, the medical association plaintiffs in the Texas case are making a mountain out of a molehill.

A surprising legal development was the Justice Department’s 11th hour notice of appeal filed today in the antitrust challenge to United Healthcare’s acquisition of Change Healthcare which a federal district judge approved last September.

In other Friday items —

Endpoints reports

The emergence of interchangeable biosimilars since the pathway opened up has been slow. But the FDA on Thursday approved the fourth interchangeable biosimilar, which is also the second interchangeable biosimilar insulin product.

Eli Lilly’s Rezvoglar (insulin glargine-aglr), which converted to an interchangeable after an earlier biosimilar approval in December 2021, follows Viatris’ Semglee in seeking out a niche to compete with Sanofi’s blockbuster Lantus (insulin glargine). * * *

These interchangeable designations mean Semglee and Rezvoglar may be substituted at the pharmacy level for Lantus, without a doctor’s prescription, and as long as the state pharmacy law permits the switch.

USA Today reports

Preterm births last year reached their highest peak since 2007 – with more than 383,000 born before 37 weeks of gestational age in the United States, according to a new report.

In 2021, roughly 10.5% of U.S. babies were born premature, according to the annual March of Dimes “Report Card,” which rated the United States at D+. The score dropped from its C- rating in 2020, when the preterm birth rate saw its first decline in six years, a slight decrease to 10.1%.

The report released this week found disparities widened between white mothers and Native and Black mothers, who are already 62% more likely to have a preterm birth and nearly three times as likely as white moms to die of childbirth-related causes. In 2021, Black mothers saw a 3% increase and Native mothers a 6% increase in preterm births, according to the analysis.

Of all groups, Asian and Pacific Islander mothers saw the largest preterm birth increase – an 8% surge  – even though births to Asian mothers decreased that year, and they have the lowest preterm birth rate overall.

HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research capped off antibiotic awareness week by releasing antibiotic stewardship kits for the acute hospital, long-term care, and ambulatory care settings.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

Today, November 17, is National Rural Health Day.

Let’s follow up on two posts from this week:

  • On Tuesday, the FEHBlog mentioned that the Internal Revenue Service issued Notice 2022-59 which adjusts the PCORI fee for years “that end on or after October 1, 2022, and before October 1, 2023.” The FEHBlog referenced an adjusted PCORI fee of $2.79 per covered life. Whoops. The FEHBlog referenced the current PCORI fee. The adjusted PCORI fee is $3.00 per covered life. Lo siento.
  • Yesterday, the FEHBlog called to readers’ attention a Congressional Research Service report on federal healthcare laws enacted in the current Congress that expire at the end of 2022. The FEHBlog thought “I should go back and read that report.” Today an email from the Wagner Law firm identified one of these expiring laws, to wit

During the pandemic, Congress allowed telehealth services to be provided to HSA-eligible individuals without cost-sharing and without regard to whether they had met their deductibles under their High Deductible Health Plans. That authorization expired December 31, 2021. Congress then again allowed deductible-free telehealth services to resume from April 1, 2022, through December 31, 2022. Unless this authorization is extended again, plans covering HSA-eligible individuals will have to require that telehealth services be provided to those individuals on the same terms as in-person care, i.e., the deductible must be met before telehealth can be provided without further charge to the patient. [The American Benefits Council has asked Congress to extend this consumer protection.]

From Capitol Hill, Politico brings us up to date on medical association efforts to block or at least reduce a 4.5% cut in Medicare Part B payments to physicians.

From the federal employee benefits front, Tammy Flanagan writing in Govexec discusses the health benefit options available to federal employees who are veterans.

“From the public health front —

  • The Labor Department’s Department’scupational Safety and Health Administration offers guidance to employers on controlling seasonal flu outbreaks in the office or plant.
  • The New York Times examines anti-depressant drugs. “The most commonly prescribed medications for depression are somewhat effective — but not because they correct a “chemical imbalance.”

Hospitals have made progress in reducing preventable errors, accidents and injuries over the past decade, according to the Leapfrog Group’s fall 2022 hospital safety grades released Wednesday.

Incidents of falls and trauma and of objects unintentionally left in a body after surgery decreased by about 25% since 2012, according to Leapfrog.

In this year’s fall rankings, 30% of hospitals earned an A grade, 28% earned a B, 36% earned a C, 6% earned a D and 1% earned an F.

From the Rx coverage front,

Today the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved [Provention Bio’s] Tzield (teplizumab-mzwv) injection to delay the onset of stage 3 type 1 diabetes in adults and pediatric patients 8 years and older who currently have stage 2 type 1 diabetes. 

“Today’s approval of a first-in-class therapy adds an important new treatment option for certain at-risk patients,” said John Sharretts, M.D., director of the Division of Diabetes, Lipid Disorders, and Obesity in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “The drug’s potential to delay clinical diagnosis of type 1 diabetes may provide patients with months to years without the burdens of disease.” 

“From the plan design front, MedCity News tells us “Historically having worked with Medicaid and Medicare Advantage populations, Uber Health is now expanding its services to self-insured employers. The company made the announcement at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Capitol Hill front —

  • Roll Call and Govexec bring us up to date on the lame-duck session’s agenda.
  • The Washington Post tells us about the Administration’s plans to include $10 billion in Covid funding in the omnibus appropriations bill that Congress must pass or extend by December 16.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports “Republicans have won 217 House seats to the Democrats’ 205, according to the Associated Press tally. A party needs 218 for a majority in the chamber, and Republicans were on track for a very narrow margin after they won seats Monday in Arizona, California and New York. ” This development increases the likelihood that Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill before year-end.
  • The Congressional Budget Office posted a presentation on its recommended policy approaches to reduce commercial health Insurer payments for hospitals’ and physicians’ services. The presentation is worth a gander because the American Hospital Association, among others, is not pleased with the CBO’s recommendations.

The Federal Employee Benefits Open Season started today, and Govexec offers a checklist to help decision-makers.

From the conferences’ front —

  • The American Medical Association shares developments from its interim meeting which concludes tomorrow.
  • Fierce Healthcare offers a news feed from the HLTH 2022 conference.

From the Affordable Care Act front, the Internal Revenue Service announced the PCORI support fee that health plans must pay for policy years and plan years that end on or after October 1, 2022, and before October 1, 2023. In short, the dollar amount that calendar year plans such as the FEHB plan must pay next July 31 is $3.00 times the average number of covered lives.

From the Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia front, Medscape reports

  • “Dementia prevalence is dropping in the United States, new research shows.”
  • “Of the more than 6 million Alzheimer’s patients in the U.S. age 65 or older, nearly two-thirds are women. A new study may help explain the gender gap — and offer clues to new treatments for helping patients of both sexes fight back.” The FEHBlog has been taking a continuing legal education course on eldercare, and the practicing lawyers teaching the court remarked that 95% of the clients for whom Medicaid nursing home coverage is sought are husbands.
  • “Among older adults who use the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), rates of memory decline appear to be slower than among those who don’t use the program, new research shows.”

The Wall Street Journal informs us

An experimental Alzheimer’s drug from Roche Holding AG failed to significantly slow cognitive decline in long-awaited trials, the latest in a long line of setbacks for a field that has seen little progress in decades.

The drug, called gantenerumab, slightly reduced cognitive decline in people with early Alzheimer’s compared with a placebo across two large and lengthy trials, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant, Roche said Monday. The trials, which lasted more than two years and involved nearly 2,000 participants, compared scores of cognition and function in areas such as memory, orientation and problem-solving. * * *

The news comes just weeks after clinical trial results from a drug developed jointly by Biogen Inc. and Eisai Co. infused fresh hope into a field that has been marked by failure. The Biogen and Eisai drug, called lecanemab, reduced cognitive and functional decline by 27% compared with a placebo. The companies say they plan to provide more detailed study results at an upcoming research conference.

Like lecanemab, Roche’s gantenerumab targets accumulations of beta-amyloid, a protein that is found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s and is thought to be linked to the disease. Several earlier beta-amyloid-targeting drugs had failed in clinical trials, although each drug acts slightly differently.

Roche Chief Executive Severin Schwan said last month that the Biogen and Eisai results were encouraging, but cautioned that they didn’t shed any light on the likely success of gantenerumab. Roche said Monday that the level of beta-amyloid removal by gantenerumab was lower than expected in the trials.

In other news —

  • Per Fierce Healthcare, Aetna announced a new advanced price care program in cooperation with Crossover Health. The program will launch next January 1 in the Seattle Washington region. “The new hybrid care model is integrated into a health plan and aims to tackle the rising access issues and costs of healthcare with a fixed fee, value-based payment model, executives said.”
  • Milliman offers its thoughts on mental health challenges facing employers.

Happy Veterans’ Day

To those who followed our Nation’s colors, thanks for your service. Here’s a Veteran’s Day message from the Veterans Administration Secretary Denis McDonough and the OPM Director Kiran Ahuja.

FedWeek informs us about a recent OPM Inspector General report about the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program contract.

Projected future income from premiums in the Federal Long-Term Care Insurance Program is not enough to cover projected future claims, an audit by the inspector general’s office at the OPM has found.

It said that while the program over 2017-2019 took in about $2.2 million more than it paid out, boosting a trust fund held by the contractor (the John Hancock insurance company), under current projections those reserves will be depleted by 2048. That’s due to lower long-term interest rates than previously assumed and “higher claims utilization due to longer life expectancies (especially with dementia patients).”

It says that participants “will likely see a large increase in premiums and/or decrease to benefits for the next contract period to help reduce the deficit. As demonstrated at the start of this contract period in 2016, FLTCIP’s large one-time premium increase and/or benefit decrease caused an unexpected hardship to its participants.” That contract is to expire in 2023. * * *

In response, the carrier pointed out that in a letter to participants with the option to purchase additional inflation protection it said “there is a strong likelihood that premium rates for many enrollees may need to increase” while OPM noted that earlier this year it told the carrier to stop active marketing efforts to prospective applicants.

The FEHBlog is glad that this problem is not on his plate.

Because today is a federal holiday, the Centers for Disease Control did not issue an interpretative report on its Covid statistics for this week.

Medscape tells us

Global deaths due to COVID-19 have dropped almost 90% since February, the head of the World Health Organization said Wednesday.

Last week, 9,400 deaths were reported linked to the coronavirus, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

That’s down from 75,000 a week in February. * * *

The Associated Press reported that more than 2.1 million new cases were reported to WHO for the week ending Sunday. That’s down 15% from the prior week, and the number of weekly deaths fell 10% compared to the prior week.

Beckers Payer Issues adds

The U.S. will extend the COVID-19 public health emergency through at least April 11, 2023, Biden administration officials confirmed to CNBC Nov. 11.

A 12th extension of the PHE since the first in January 2020 is further ensured by a lack of public statement from HHS warning about a termination. The agency last renewed the PHE Oct. 13 for an additional 90 days to Jan. 11, 2023 — it also told states it would provide a notice 60 days before if it did decide to end it, or Nov. 11.

The PHE allows the country to continue operating under pandemic-era policies, which led to a complete overhaul of telehealth and who can use it, fast-tracked approvals of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, and preserved healthcare coverage for millions of Medicaid beneficiaries nationwide.

The CDC did update its FluView page on November 10 for November 4

Influenza activity continues to increase. Regions 4 (Southeast) and 6 (South-Central) are reporting the highest levels of flu activity, followed by regions 3 (Mid-Atlantic) and 9 (south-central West Coast).

Three influenza-associated pediatric deaths were reported this week.

CDC estimates that, so far this season, there have been at least 2.8 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 1,300 deaths from flu.

The cumulative hospitalization rate in the FluSurv-NET system is higher than the rate observed in week 44 during every previous season since 2010-2011.

The RSV epidemic has not subsided according to MedPage Today

Children’s hospitals aren’t the only ones drowning in patients with respiratory illness — it’s also general emergency departments (EDs), urgent care clinics, and pediatrician’s offices.

Hit by a surge of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), flu, and COVID-19, physicians and nurses across the country are calling for help and asking parents to keep children home unless they’re seriously ill.

“It’s just important that people recognize that when you step back and look at the healthcare system as a whole, that volume is high everywhere,” Katie Lockwood, MD, MEd, a primary care physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told MedPage Today.

“It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t go to the ER because we’re busy, or the ER saying you should go to primary care because we’re busy. Everybody is busy,” she added. “One of the things that I had been hearing from my own patients … was how long they were having to wait when they did go to an emergency department, and urgent cares were really full, and we were seeing a lot of volume in [my] office.”

Physicians say that seasonal increases in respiratory illness, which are expected, normally come later in the year. This year’s early surge in RSV-associated hospitalization, according to the CDC, is higher than December and January peak rates in recent years.

From the mental healthcare front, the American Hospital Association reports

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration yesterday [Thursday] released National Guidelines for Child and Youth Behavioral Health Crisis Care, which offer guidance and strategies to help communities address gaps in behavioral health crisis services for children and youth. The guidelines recommend that youth in crisis from mental health and substance use disorders receive care in the least restrictive setting possible, and if safe, at home and in the community. They also recommend crisis response systems partner with schools, community organizations and others across the continuum of care; be trained to respond to diverse needs; and reflect the diverse communities they serve.

AHA last year joined the Children’s Hospital Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry as a partner in Sound the Alarm for Kids, an initiative urging Congress to enact legislation and increase funding to better support mental health for children and teens.

The 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in July transitioned to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, meaning individuals experiencing a suicide, mental health or substance use crisis can simply call, chat or text 988 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. For more information, visit the AHA’s 988 resources page

From the Rx coverage front, EndPoints discusses the importance of the FDA’s interchangeability tag in facilitating biosimilar competition.

With the growth in biologics spending, the biosimilar market is going to have to find new ways to keep up.

One avenue may open up with new interchangeable biosimilars that can be substituted without a doctor’s note, and which could help bring costs down for some pricier, patient-administered therapies. FDA officials discussed key flexibilities that they can make around the development of interchangeable biosimilars at an Association for Accessible Medicines’ industry conference yesterday in Bethesda, Md.

While the FDA has only signed off on three interchangeable biosimilars so far — Viatris’ insulin Semglee, Boehringer Ingelheim’s Humira interchangeable Cyltezo (launching next year), and Coherus’ Lucentis interchangeable Cimerli — Jacqueline Corrigan-Curay, CDER’s principal deputy center director, explained to the Association of Accessible Medicines’ industry conference yesterday that the agency is willing to work with industry where the science is justified.

From the artificial intelligence front, Health IT Analytics relates

A recent study published in the American Journal of Managed Care found that identifying high-cost members was made easier through the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) and the analysis of patient demographics.

Identifying high-cost members is essential for payers and providers, as it offers them information on preventing excessive spending. Traditionally, payers and care delivery organizations rely on care management efforts to reduce medical expenditure; however, this can often be challenging due to the limitations of incorporating other data sources, according to the study authors.

In the study, researchers aimed to implement a risk prediction model that uses AI to analyze information such as claims data, demographics, social determinants of health (SDOH) data, and admission, discharge, and transfer alerts (ADT) to better identify high-cost members. * * *

Researchers used data from a Medicaid accountable care organization (ACO) gathered from 61,850 members enrolled between May 2018 and April 2019.

Researchers then estimated risk scores for each member using two separate models. The first model was developed by Medical Home Network and relied on AI to analyze data related to SDOH, and activity related to ADT, along with claims and demographic characteristics. However, the second model, known as the Chronic Illness and Disability Payment System (CDPS) , only used demographic and claims information.

Based on this information, the researchers found that the AI model could perform a more accurate analysis of the highest-risk members and their spending. In addition, they found that those the AI model identified as high-risk had higher spending than those identified by the CDPS model.

Despite these conclusions, researchers noted a few limitations, mainly related to the data coming from a single ACO from a single geographic area and a single 12-month period.

Useful insights.

Midweek Update

Forbes reports

As the polls pretty much predicted, Tuesday’s midterms turned out to be very close in terms of the balance of power between the two parties. As of this writing [Wednesday evening] it’s still not clear which party controls the House and Senate. But in several states, there were important healthcare issues on the ballot that were settled more decisively. In South Dakota, voters approved an expansion of Medicaid benefits, adding itself to the list of many other states that have bypassed legislatures to expand the program by ballot initiative. Voters in Michigan, California and Vermont approved Constitutional amendments protecting abortion rights while voters in Kentucky rejected an amendment that would have stated abortion rights are not protected in the state. Meanwhile, in Arizona many of the headline races are still too close to call as of this writing, but one vote that isn’t is an overwhelming “Yes” for Proposition 209, which expands property and assets that can’t be collected against medical debt and also reduces the interest rate that can be charged on it. 

From the Omicron and siblings front, protein-based Covid vaccine manufacturer Novovax reports on its third-quarter earnings and the value of its vaccine as a booster. In addition, Novovax says that it has delivered over 94 million doses of its vaccine worldwide.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, we have a trifecta from Healthcare Dive.

Healthcare Dive informs us

More than 30 healthcare associations and advocacy groups joined the American College of Emergency Physicians in asking President Joe Biden to prioritize finding solutions to the problem of overcrowded hospital emergency rooms.

Strained emergency departments are coping with an increase in boarding, a term for when patients are held in the ED longer than they should be because of a lack of available inpatient beds. The problem has led to gridlocked EDs filled with patients waiting, sometimes in life-threatening situations, the ACEP and other groups warned Monday in a letter to the president. “Boarding has become its own public health emergency,” the letter said.

The organizations urged the Biden administration to convene a summit of stakeholders from across the healthcare system to identify immediate and long-term solutions to the boarding problem.

Holy cow!

Healthcare Dive tells us

Elevance Health inked a deal to acquire a specialty pharmacy that caters to patients with complex and chronic conditions like cancer and multiple sclerosis.

The insurer said BioPlus will complement its existing pharmacy benefit manager, IngenioRx, providing patients with specialty drugs and a whole-health approach.

After closing and integrating BioPlus into operations, the company will be able to leverage the insights from both pharmacy and medical benefits, Elevance announced on Wednesday.

Working together, BioPlus’ pharmacy team will be able to identify “a patient who may need behavioral health support or in-home care services” and “seamlessly connect that patient to services to address their whole health needs,” Elevance said.

The deal is expected to close in the first half of 2023. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Healthcare Dive also explains why Cigna invested $2.5 billion in Walgreen’s combined Village MD / Summit Health primary care company.

Unlike many other primary care physician groups, VillageMD is focused on the commercial market, which brings in two-thirds of its revenue. That plays to Cigna’s strength in the employer market, as the majority of its customers are commercial employers, according to Credit Suisse analyst A.J. Rice.

As part of its investment, Evernorth will develop value-based agreements with VillageMD. The two will work together to optimize sites of care and patient outcomes through VillageMD’s physician network and Evernorth’s health services businesses, which include pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts, specialty pharmacy Accredo and virtual care provider MDLive.

Beckers Hospital Review discusses how CVS, Amazon and Walgreens are pushing into primary care, and home health care.

From the healthcare quality front

The HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research’s Director offers a blog post about how “AHRQ’s Research and Tools Help Transform Delivery of Primary Care.”

Patient Engagement HIT relates

Personal health record (PHR) use is key to driving patient engagement, with recent JMIR Cancer data showing PHR use among colorectal cancer survivors increasing access to follow-up care and screening by more than 30 percentage points.

Additionally, PHR use increased the proportion of survivors who believed access to certain follow-up cancer screenings was important to their health and well-being, according to researchers from the Regenstrief Institute, the VA, and Indiana University’s schools of medicine and nursing.

PHRs are different from EHRs in that they are patient-facing and give users insights into their own health information. Most PHRs, particularly PHRs “tethered” to the EHR, come with some secure messaging and patient notification systems, giving the technologies even more patient engagement power.

Revcycle Intelligence reports

Hospitals work hard to avoid “never events,” or serious, largely preventable, and harmful events identified by the National Quality Forum (NQF). These never events include performing surgery on the wrong patient or accidentally leaving an item in a patient after an invasive procedure. However, some industry experts are now calling onthe healthcare industry to consider a new set of never events that are administrative in nature, such as aggressive medical debt collection.

Dave A. Chokshi, MD, MSc, FACP, senior scholar at CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy and former Commissioner at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Adam L. Beckman, BS, of Harvard’s Medical and Business Schools, identify five new hospital never events in a new JAMA Health Forum article. They say that hospitals should never:

  1. Aggressively pursue medical debt against patients who cannot afford their bills
  2. Spend less on community benefits than it earns in tax breaks from non-profit status
  3. Flout federal requirements for hospitals to be transparent with patients about costs
  4. Compensate hospital workers less than a living wage
  5. Deliver racially segregated care

That approach could get the attention of hospitals.

Finally, Med City News informs us

More than three quarters, or 77%, of reproductive-aged women want birth control pills to be made available without a prescription, provided that research proves the pills safe and effective, a new survey shows.

“Oral contraceptives are the most commonly used method of reversible contraception in the U.S., and studies suggest that [over-the-counter] access would increase use of contraception and facilitate continuity of use in addition to saving time spent on travel, at a doctor’s office, and off work,” the report stated.

Under the Affordable Care Act, most private health insurance plans are required to cover FDA-approved birth control, but it must be prescribed. However, 41% of women at reproductive age are not aware of this. About 70% of women with private insurance said their health plan fully covered their birth control, but about a quarter said they had to pay some out-of-pocket.

The ACA rule also applies to FEHB plans. The FEHBlog is metaphysically certain the ACA regulators would extend this rule to over the counter contraceptive if the Food and Drug Administration can get its act together.

Weekend update

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

Congressional election day is Tuesday. The lame duck session will be next Monday.

Also next Monday, the Federal Employee Benefit Open Season will kick off. OPM has made the 2023 FEHBP and FEDVIP plan comparison tools available. Check them out.

Govexec reports on OPM Director Kiran Ahuja’s speech last Wednesday Wednesday at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Public Administration.” Ms. Ahuja said “the federal government’s HR agency is hard at work finding ways to improve the federal government’s personnel systems and shifting toward becoming a modern leader on strategic human capital issues.”

From the Rx coverage front, NPR Shots tells us

If you were prescribed medicine to lower your risk of a heart attack or stroke, would you take it? 

Millions of Americans are prescribed statins such as Lipitor, Crestor or generic formulations to lower their cholesterol. But lots of people are hesitant to start the medication. 

Some people fret over potential side effects such as leg cramps, which may be – or may not be – linked to the drug. As an alternative, dietary supplements, often marketed to promote heart health, including fish oil and other omega-3 supplements (Omega-3’s are essential fatty acids found in fish and flaxseed), are growing in popularity

So, which is most effective? Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic set out to answer this question by comparing statins to supplements in a clinical trial. They tracked the outcomes of 190 adults, ages 40 to 75. Some participants were given a 5 mg daily dose of rosuvastatin, a statin that is sold under the brand name Crestor for 28 days. Others were given supplements, including fish oil, cinnamon, garlic, turmeric, plant sterols or red yeast rice for the same period.

The maker of Crestor, Astra Zeneca sponsored the study, but the researchers worked independently to design the study and run the statistical analysis.

“What we found was that rosuvastatin lowered LDL cholesterol by almost 38% and that was vastly superior to placebo and any of the six supplements studied in the trial,” study author Luke Laffin, M.D. of the Cleveland Clinic’s Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute told NPR. He says this level of reduction is enough to lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The findings are published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

“Oftentimes these supplements are marketed as ‘natural ways’ to lower your cholesterol,” says Laffin. But he says none of the dietary supplements demonstrated any significant decrease in LDL cholesterol compared with a placebo. LDL cholesterol is considered the ‘bad cholesterol’ because it can contribute to plaque build-up in the artery walls – which can narrow the arteries, and set the stage for heart attacks and strokes.

“Clearly, statins do what they’re intended to do,” the study’s senior author Steve Nissen, M.D., a cardiologist and Chief Academic Officer of the Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute at Cleveland Clinic told NPR.

Forbes informs us

In healthcare contexts, American consumers have historically tended to abandon their consumerism skills, often entering the doctor’s office or insurance process helpless, overwhelmed, and at the mercy of the system. Even when consumers have high expectations for their healthcare experiences, they’re often disappointed.

New research suggests that those days may be over. According to the 2022 Patient Access Journey Report, released last week from Kyruus, “Patients are consumers first.”

For the sixth year in a row, Kyruus has surveyed 1,000 consumers across geographies and generations to understand their preferences for selecting and accessing healthcare services. This year’s report focuses on three aspects of the healthcare consumer experience: search, selection, and action. 

The latest findings suggest consumers, in fact, now weigh similar factors in choosing their healthcare providers and service sites as they do with other types of services. * * *

Healthcare provider websites have a two-to-one advantage in consumer trust compared with health insurance sites. Forty-four percent of consumers surveyed said that they view healthcare provider websites as the most trustworthy source for information about healthcare providers or services, compared with 20% who rated health insurance providers as the most trustworthy. But the percentage of respondents who said health insurance providers were the most trustworthy sources of information jumped nine points since 2021.

From the miscellany department

  • NPR Shots explains what to watch for in the RSV surge and answers about treatment options
  • MedPage Today calls our attention to models leading to a favorable Covid conclusion

The U.S. probably won’t see a major surge in COVID deaths this winter, according to new models from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle.

By Feb. 1, 2023, daily deaths are projected to be at a high point of 335, which pales in comparison to the approximate 2,500 daily deaths seen during the Omicron surge around the same time last year, according to a recently published IHME policy brief.

  • The Wall Street Journal discusses the Menty B (mental breakdown) hashtag in use in Instagram and Tik Tok and a boarding high school in Massachusetts which replaced their students smart phones with light phones. The school also banned teachers from using smart phones while teaching. Everyone’s happier.

Thursday Miscellany

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, we find guidance from FedSmith, FedWeek, and My Federal Retirement.

From the unusual viruses front —

The American Hospital Association reports that

The Department of Health and Human Services today renewed the nation’s monkeypox public health emergency declaration for another 90 days. When the PHE was announced in August, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., said the declaration would provide access to resources and flexibilities, expedite state data sharing, and provide more detailed data on testing and hospitalizations. CDC yesterday reported over 28,000 U.S. monkeypox cases since the first confirmed case May 18.

For a more current information on monkeypox, check out these articles from the Hill and MedPage Today.

From the Rx coverage front., Bloomberg reports

Hundreds of community pharmacies are having trouble filling prescriptions for amoxicillin, a common antibiotic that’s often used to treat bacterial infections in children.

Two-thirds of 333 pharmacy owners and managers who responded at the end of October to a National Community Pharmacists Association survey about drug shortages said they were having difficulty getting the antibiotic. The liquid form of the drug has been in limited supply in the US since October, according to the Food and Drug Administration, and it’s also in shortage in other countries

 

Another Bloomberg article attributes the shortage to demand due the RSV epidemic and school age children illnesses plus the generic drug’s low price.

“A lot of that risk is driven by market factors, particularly price,” explained Matt Christian, USP’s director of supply chain insights. In general, antibiotics are generic drugs that have existed for years and tend to be cheaper and have lower margins than newer drugs. That means drug companies have a lot less incentive to set up robust, resilient supply chains  and may be caught short if something goes wrong at a competing supplier.

“Lower priced drugs have a higher risk of shortage,” Christian said. “No margin, no inventory.”

An analysis by the FDA found a similar correlation: Drugs in short supply typically cost less than other medicines. * * *

“If you run out of an antibiotic as ubiquitous as amoxicillin, there is a concern that unnecessarily moving [to a more aggressive antibiotic] can further cause antimicrobial resistance,” Christian said.

Why doesn’t the federal government manufacture amoxicillin?

In other medical development news —

MedPage Today tells us

Hard thresholds for pain medication doses and duration are no longer promoted through the CDC’s new Clinical Practice Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Pain.

The new guidance — which covers acute, subacute, and chronic pain for primary care and other clinicians — updates and replaces the controversial 2016 CDC opioid guideline for chronic pain. The 2016 guideline was interpreted as imposing strict opioid dose and duration limits and was misapplied by some organizations, leading the guideline authors to clarify their recommendations in 2019.

The 2022 recommendations are voluntary and give clinicians and patients flexibility to support individual care, said Christopher Jones, PharmD, DrPH, MPH, acting director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in a CDC press briefing. They should not be used as an inflexible, one-size-fits-all policy or law, or applied as a rigid standard of care, or replace clinical judgement about personalized treatment, he emphasized.

More details can be found in the STAT News article.

Bloomberg informs us

In just 15 minutes, a small, handheld blood test can tell doctors whether a patient has likely suffered a concussion or traumatic brain injury — no brain scan required.    

After more than a decade of research, the Abbott Laboratories test is being used for the first time in a real-world setting to evaluate patients at Tampa General Hospital in Florida. Doctors using the test say it’s better at evaluating concussions than the brain scans that have been widely used for the last 30 years.  * * *

[Abbott Labs’] test, called the i-STAT TBI Plasma test, was greenlit by the Food and Drug Administration in 2021 to rule out the need for a CT scan when evaluating mild traumatic brain injuries. * * *

Though Abbott’s test is not yet ready to be used on the sidelines of sporting events, the ultimate goal for Abbott is for every hospital, urgent care clinic, ambulance, school and sporting event to have a portable test available. The company is also working on research that will help doctors know the severity of a concussion or brain injury, for both adults and kids, to aid in diagnoses.

Abbott worked with the Department of Defense to develop the test, which supported development with millions of dollars in funding. More than 450,000 US service members were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury from 2000 to 2021, according to the CDC. It’s an area the DOD is “very concerned about,” said Beth McQuiston, a neurologist and chief medical officer for Abbott’s diagnostic business.  

Bravo.

From the U.S. healthcare business front

Beckers Payer Issues reports

Cigna raised its annual earnings outlook and reported a 70 percent boost in third quarter profits compared to the same period last year, according to the company’s earnings report published Nov. 3.

“We built on our momentum from the first half of 2022 with strong execution in the third quarter across our businesses and a continued focus on serving customers and clients with our differentiated health and well-being solutions,” CEO David Cordani said.

Healthcare Dive offers an M&A perspective on the Cigna announcement.

The Wall Street Journal reports

Moderna Inc.’s third-quarter revenue fell by nearly a third and the pharmaceutical company cut its outlook, saying as part of its earnings report that supply constraints for its Covid-19 vaccines might sap as much as $3 billion in sales this year.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company said Thursday that higher costs and a decline in demand for its original Covid-19 vaccine also hit its performance.

Moderna, which three months ago said it projected $21 billion in product sales of its Spikevax vaccine for anticipated delivery this year, now expects between $18 billion and $19 billion. The company said short-term supply constraints will delay some sales into 2023.

Beckers Hospital Review cautions

The third quarter brought little relief to hospitals in what is shaping up to be one of their worst financial years.  

Kaufman Hall’s October National Hospital Flash Report — based on data from more than 900 hospitals — found slightly lower hospital expenses in September did not outweigh lower revenue across the board, with decreases in discharges, inpatient minutes and operating minutes.

The median year-to-date operating margin index for hospitals was -0.1 percent in September, marking a ninth straight month of negative operating margins and a dimmer outlook for their climb back into the black by year’s end. 

Kaufman Hall noted that expense pressures and volume and revenue declines could force hospitals to make “difficult decisions” about service reductions and cuts. 

Meanwhile according to MedCity News, the American Medical Association “blasted the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Tuesday for its 2023 Physician Fee Schedule final rule, which would cut the Medicare payment rate to physicians by nearly 4.5%.” The AMA is demanding that Congress prevent the cut from occuring January 1, 2023.

The article adds

[O]ther organizations applauded it for areas that reflected their respective priorities. For instance, the National Association of ACOs (NAACOS) praised changes to the Medicare Shared Savings Program for 2023 that included providing more time to Accountable Care Organizations before they have to assume financial risk. The final rule also gave advance shared savings payments to ACOs that care for underserved communities. CMS said it expects these changes to increase participation in rural and underserved areas. * * *

[T]he final rule made changes to policies related to telehealth. This includes extending several telehealth services that were temporarily made available during the public health emergency through at least 2023. This will “allow additional time for the collection of data that may support their inclusion as permanent additions to the Medicare Telehealth Services List,” CMS said. The change is in line with comments CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure made at a recent conference. 

The Telehealth Access for America (TAFA), which includes the American Hospital Association, applauded the changes to telehealth, though the group called on Congress to make permanent actions.

In other telehealth news, Healthcare Dive reports

  • COVID-19 diagnoses fell by about 1% to 2% as a share of telehealth claims nationally in August, according to Fair Health’s monthly tracker data out Thursday.
  • In the South and West, COVID-19 fell from the second top diagnosis to the third from July to August. It remained in second place in the Midwest and Northeast.
  • Mental health conditions stayed as the top telehealth diagnoses nationally and in every region, and one hour of psychotherapy remained the top telehealth procedure code.

Midweek update

From the alcohol abuse front, MedPage Today tells us

One out of every eight deaths in Americans ages 20 to 64 resulted from drinking too much alcohol, according to a U.S. population-based study.

Nationally, 12.9% of total deaths per year among adults in this age group were attributed to excessive alcohol consumption from 2015 to 2019, and that number rose to 20.3% of total deaths per year when restricted to people ages 20 to 49, reported Marissa Esser, PhD, MPH, of the CDC in Atlanta, and colleagues.

Alcohol-attributed deaths ranged from 9.3% in Mississippi to 21.7% in New Mexico and were more common among men than women (15% vs 9.4%), the authors wrote in JAMA Network Open.

That is startling.

From the unusual viruses front, Beckers Hospital Review explains

Wastewater testing has found polioviruses genetically tied to a case that left an unvaccinated Rockland County, N.Y., resident paralyzed this summer in at least five of the state’s counties, according to a new CDC report. 

The report, published Oct. 28, is based on wastewater testing from samples collected from March 9 through Oct. 11 from 28 sewersheds serving parts of Rockland County and 12 other counties. Eighty-nine samples, or 8.3 percent of 1,076 samples collected, tested positive for poliovirus type 2. Of those, 82 were linked to the virus isolated from the Rockland County patient who was left paralyzed 

“Although most persons in the United States are sufficiently immunized, unvaccinated or undervaccinated persons living or working in Kings, Orange, Queens, Rockland, or Sullivan counties, New York should complete the polio vaccination series to prevent additional paralytic cases and curtail transmission,” the CDC report said. 

CDC officials recently told CNBC they are considering the use of a novel oral polio vaccine not used in 20 years to halt the outbreak. 

From the opioid epidemic front, Healthcare Dive informs us

CVS Health agreed on Wednesday to pay $5 billion to settle almost all opioid-related lawsuits and claims the company been battling over the past decade that alleged it mishandled prescriptions of the painkillers.

If the deal is finalized, CVS will pay $4.9 billion to states and political entities such as counties and cities, and $130 million to U.S. tribes.

The payments, which depend partially on the number of government entities that agree to join the settlement, will be spread out over the next 10 years beginning in 2023.

Cities, counties and states have filed more than 3,000 lawsuits against drugmakers, distributors and pharmacies for their role in perpetrating the opioid epidemic in the U.S. According to government data, three-fourths of the 92,000 drug overdose deaths in 2020 involved an opioid.

Walgreens and Walmart also have reached deals to settle opioid-related claims, Reuters reported, citing people familiar with the matter. Walgreens will pay $5.7 billion over 15 years and Walmart will pay $3.1 billion, mostly up front, according to the report.

If the settlements from the three companies, which are the largest retail pharmacies in the U.S., become final, it may end much of the yearslong litigation over opioids. Cases still are pending against smaller pharmacies such as Rite Aid.

The deals follow some victories for plaintiffs against the chains. 

In related healthcare business news, Beckers Hospital Review reports

CVS Health raised its annual earnings outlook after beating investor expectations in the third quarter, but the company reported $3.4 billion in losses after agreeing to pay into a global opioid lawsuit settlement starting next year.

The $5 billion settlement will be paid out over 10 years and “substantially resolve all opioid lawsuits and claims against the company by states, political subdivisions, such as counties and cities, and tribes in the United States,” the company said in its Nov. 2 earnings report.

The company’s third quarter EPS is $2.09 and $6.71 for 2022. It also raised its full year guidance and expects adjusted EPS to rise from a range of $8.40-$8.60 to $8.55-$8.65.

“We delivered another outstanding quarter, and have raised full-year guidance as a result. We continue to execute on our strategy with a focus on expanding capabilities in health care delivery, and the announced acquisition of Signify Health will further strengthen our engagement with consumers,” President and CEO Karen Lynch said.

and

Humana reported $1.2 billion in profits during the third quarter and is expecting major increases in Medicare Advantage membership, according to the company’s Nov. 2 earnings report.

The company reported $22.8 billion in third quarter revenues, increasing 10.2 percent from $20.7 billion year over year. Total revenues in 2022 are $70.4 billion

The company expects an annual adjusted EPS guidance of $25 and raised its 2022 earnings outlook to $91.6 billion – $93.2 billion.

Healthcare Dive adds

Los Angeles-based Heal, a provider of primary care through house calls, telemedicine visits and remote patient monitoring, said it has partnered with Cigna Medicare Advantage plans in four states as it continues its national expansion.

The organization is now an in-network provider for Cigna MA enrollees in Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, effective immediately, it said. Its markets also include Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Washington.

Heal works with Humana, WellCare, Aetna and UnitedHealthcare insurance plans, according to its website.

Fierce Healthcare relates

Nearly 334,000 physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other clinicians left the workforce in 2021 due to retirement, burnout and pandemic-related stressors, according to new data [found in the Definitive Healthcare report]. * * *

Hospitals and health systems are spending more money to hire and retain healthcare workers, the report found. These facilities are increasing salaries, offering sign-on bonuses, and expanding benefits to lure in new workers. Hospitals nationwide spent a total of about $97.3 million on employees and physician salaries in 2020, compared with $82.7 million in 2016, according to data from the October 2021 Medicare Cost Report.

From the medical devices front, STAT News tells us

A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel suggested Tuesday that the agency improve how it regulates pulse oximeters, calling for clearer labeling and more rigorous testing of the devices. The widely used instruments monitor blood oxygen levels and have been shown to work less well on patients with darker skin, possibly exacerbating health disparities in many racial and ethnic groups. 

Healthcare Dive points out

Optical sensor solution in fingertip monitors gives medical-grade accuracy of oxygen level measurement across skin tones and while in motion.

A patented SpO2 sensor chipset, integrated processing and reference design capability has uses in other wearable devices, according to BioIntelliSense.

The inability of many fingertip monitors to accurately read blood oxygen levels has caused people with darker skin to wait hours for supplemental oxygen and in some cases has caused deaths.

That’s good news for you.

Moreover, Health IT Analytics reports

A team of Yale University researchers has developed a machine learning (ML)-based clinical decision support tool to personalize recommendations for pursuing intensive or standard blood pressure treatment goals among individuals with and without diabetes.

The tool, described in a study published earlier this week in The Lancet Digital Health, is designed to facilitate shared decision-making between providers and patients with hypertension through a data-driven approach. Hypertension is defined as a sustained blood pressure greater than 140/90 mm Hg and is a leading cause of heart disease and mortality.

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News tells us

A blockbuster weight-loss medicine led to dramatic effects for adolescents diagnosed with obesity, a result that will likely widen the use of an in-demand drug — and fan a debate over whether someone’s body weight should be treated as a disease.

The drug, a weekly injection called semaglutide, led to a 17% reduction in body mass index compared to placebo in a study of about 200 people between the ages of 12 and 18. On average, adolescents treated with semaglutide lost 34 pounds, or 15% of their body weight, over the course of the 68-week study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday. Those on placebo gained an average of five pounds, or 3% of their baseline weight.

The trial’s relatively small size and short duration leave outstanding questions about whether semaglutide’s side effects, which include nausea and rare cases of gallstones, will lead to long-term problems, said Julie Ingelfinger, a pediatric nephrologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who was not involved in the study. But the results suggest semaglutide, sold by the Danish drug company Novo Nordisk, could be a powerful tool for adolescents unable to lose weight through diet and exercise.

From the post Dobbs front, the New York Times surveys the landscape and finds increasing use of telemedicine services, such as Aid Access, to obtain abortion pills.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

November is awareness month for diabetes and C. Diff. Looking back at October, Medscape informs us

Maintaining a healthy body weight, being physically active, and following a healthy dietary pattern can help women live longer after breast cancer diagnosis, according to a major new analysis of the latest research.

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, the Federal Times offers its consumer guide.

It was a big day on the Medicare front —

The American Hospital Association reports

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services [CMS] late today posted a final rule on its website that will increase Medicare hospital outpatient prospective payment system rates by a net 3.8% in calendar year 2023 compared to 2022. This update is based on a market basket percentage increase of 4.1%, reduced by 0.3 percentage points for productivity. [AHA calls the increase insufficient.] * * *

CMS finalized the payment policy for CY 2023 of average sales price (ASP) +6% for drugs and biologicals acquired through the 340B Program as a result of the unanimous Supreme Court decision in American Hospital Association v. Becerra.

CMS also finalized proposals to establish the Rural Emergency Hospital (REH) model, a new provider type for eligible critical access hospitals and small rural hospitals beginning in Jan. 1, 2023. The rule finalized proposals related to model payment, covered services, conditions of participation, and quality measurements.

[and]

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services today released on its website its calendar year 2023 final rule for the physician fee schedule. The rule will cut the conversion factor to $33.06 in CY 2023 from $34.61 in CY 2022, which reflects the expiration of the temporary 3% statutory payment increase; a 0.00% conversion factor update; and a budget-neutrality adjustment.

From HHS.gov

For a fact sheet on the CY 2023 OPPS/ASC Payment System Final Rule (CMS-1772-FC), please visit: https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/cy-2023-medicare-hospital-outpatient-prospective-payment-system-and-ambulatory-surgical-center-2

For a fact sheet on Rural Emergency Hospitals, please visit: https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/cy-2023-medicare-hospital-outpatient-prospective-payment-system-and-ambulatory-surgical-center-1

For a fact sheet on the CY 2023 Physician Fee Schedule Final Rule, please visit: https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/calendar-year-cy-2023-medicare-physician-fee-schedule-final-rule

For a fact sheet on final changes to the CY 2023 Quality Payment Program, please visit: https://qpp-cm-prod-content.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/2136/2023%20Quality%20Payment%20Program%20Final%20Rule%20Resources.zip 

For a fact sheet on final changes to the Medicare Shared Savings Program, please visit: https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/calendar-year-cy-2023-medicare-physician-fee-schedule-final-rule-medicare-shared-savings-program

For a CMS blog on behavioral health poliices, please visit: https://www.cms.gov/blog/strengthening-behavioral-health-care-people-medicare-0?check_logged_in=1

What’s more, Beckers Hospital Review informs us

CMS evaluated two and a half years of readmission cases for Medicare patients through the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program and penalized 2,273 hospitals that had a greater-than-expected rate of return, according to a Nov. 1 report from Kaiser Health News.

The average payment reduction was 0.43 percent, the lowest rate reduction since 2014. Reductions will be applied to each Medicare payment to the affected hospitals from Oct. 1 through next September. It is expected to cost the hospitals $320 million over the 12-month period. 

The report notes that the COVID-19 pandemic caused turmoil in hospitals and that CMS decided to exclude the first half of 2020 from the report due to the chaos. CMS also excluded Medicare patients who were readmitted with pneumonia across all three years because of the difficulty distinguishing them from COVID patients. 

From the Affordable Care Act preventive services front, Healio tells us

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has released two final recommendations on the use of hormone therapy for the primary prevention of chronic conditions in postmenopausal people.

The recommendations advocate against the use of menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) through a combination of estrogen and progestin in postmenopausal people, and MHT through estrogen alone in postmenopausal people who have had a hysterectomy.

Both are D-grade recommendations and are consistent with the USPSTF’s previous recommendations on the treatment made back in 2017.

James Stevermer, MD, MSPH, a task force member, also noted in the press release that the recommendations are only for those who are considering hormone therapy to prevent chronic conditions following menopause. 

“Those who wish to manage symptoms of menopause with hormone therapy are encouraged to talk with their health care professional,” he said.

From the prescription drug and vaccine development front —

STAT News reports

Pfizer’s maternal vaccine against the respiratory syncytial virus [RSV] reduced the rate of severe illness in newborns by 81.8%, the company said Tuesday, meeting the goal of a pivotal study.

The company said that it plans to file the data on the vaccine with regulators by the end of the year and that it expects an eight-month review.

RSV is a common cause of illness and infection in young infants. By giving the vaccine during pregnancy, researchers hope antibodies generated by mothers would be transferred to infants. Currently, the pertussis vaccine and the influenza vaccine are given during pregnancy for this reason.

Bloomberg Prognosis tells us

Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a Boston-based biotech company, * * * is testing a non-opioid drug for acute pain. Vertex’s drug, VX-548, aims to block the Nav1.8 sodium channel, which acts like a gate allowing pain signals to travel from the nerves to the brain.

VX-548 met its goals in late-stage trials evaluating the drug in people who underwent a bunionectomy or an abdominoplasty, the formal name for a tummy tuck. Vertex will run the same studies with more patients before seeking regulatory approval. The company hasn’t disclosed when data will be available beyond saying the trials will be quick since patients receive the drug for only 48 hours. Vertex is also testing VX-548 in nerve pain and eventually wants to see if it works for chronic pain.

If VX-548 passes its next big tests, it could offer a new option for people recovering from surgery or other medical procedures. Of course, plenty of other pain drugs that looked promising early on in testing never reached the market.

Fortunately, scientists are investing time and money on a variety of alternatives for pain.

From the Rx coverage front, BioPharma Dive relates

Eli Lilly’s new diabetes medicine Mounjaro outpaced Wall Street sales forecasts during the third quarter, fueled by strong patient demand and widening insurer coverage.

U.S. sales of the drug totaled $97 million between July and September, Mounjaro’s first full quarter on the market since its May 13 approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Payments related to a collaboration agreement with Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma in Japan pushed global revenue for the quarter to $187 million, well above the consensus analyst forecast of $82 million.

“We have seen unprecedented demand for Mounjaro’s Type 2 diabetes launch in the U.S.,” said Anat Ashkenazi, Lilly’s chief financial officer, on a Tuesday call with analysts. 

Lilly is also conducting a study to support an FDA marketing application for Mounjaro to be prescribed for weight loss.

Notably, Mounjaro showed a potent effect in reducing trial participants’ weight, a benefit that was also observed in a large study specifically assessing it as an obesity treatment. While it’s currently only approved to treat Type 2 diabetes, its potential as a medicine for both chronic conditions has made it one of Lilly’s most important products.

Lilly is currently conducting a second study in obesity and plans to complete an approval application in that indication should results, expected in April next year, also prove positive. 

In U.S. healthcare business news, MedTech Dive reports

Johnson & Johnson agreed to acquire Abiomed, a Danvers, Mass.-based maker of heart pumps, for $16.6 billion. 

The deal will contribute to J&J’s cardiovascular portfolio, complementing its Biosense Webster electrophysiology business, BTIG Analyst Marie Thibault wrote in a research note on Tuesday. 

The deal has already been approved by both companies’ boards of directors and is expected to close before the end of the first quarter of 2023.

Finally, check out the NIH Director’s blog discussing “How the Brain Differentiates the ‘Click,’ ‘Crack,’ or ‘Thud’ of Everyday Tasks.”

If you’ve been staying up late to watch the World Series, you probably spent those nine innings hoping for superstars Bryce Harper or José Altuve to square up a fastball and send it sailing out of the yard. Long-time baseball fans like me can distinguish immediately the loud crack of a home-run swing from the dull thud of a weak grounder. 

Our brains have such a fascinating ability to discern “right” sounds from “wrong” ones in just an instant. This applies not only in baseball, but in the things that we do throughout the day, whether it’s hitting the right note on a musical instrument or pushing the car door just enough to click it shut without slamming.

Now, an NIH-funded team of neuroscientists has discovered what happens in the brain when one hears an expected or “right” sound versus a “wrong” one after completing a task. It turns out that the mammalian brain is remarkably good at predicting both when a sound should happen and what it ideally ought to sound like. Any notable mismatch between that expectation and the feedback, and the hearing center of the brain reacts.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Kaiser Health News announced the winner of their fourth annual Halloween haiku contest.

Covid, Ebola,
Monkeypox, seasonal flu —
Who needs Halloween?

— Paul Hughes-Cromwick

The Department of Health and Human Services reminds us that the federal healthcare / Obamacare marketplace will be open for business tomorrow. Professor Katie Keith, writing in Health Affairs Forefront, provides all the details.

The U.S. Office of Personnnel Management issued a press release today with a list of senior staff transitions and additional key staff appointments.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Medscape reports

The U.S. National Institutes of Health’s $1 billion RECOVER Initiative has picked Pfizer Inc’s antiviral drug Paxlovid as the first treatment it will study in patients with long COVID, organizers of the study said on Thursday.

The complex medical condition involves more than 200 symptoms ranging from exhaustion and cognitive impairment to pain, fever and heart palpitations that can last for months and even years following a COVID-19 infection.

According to details of the study, posted on Clinicaltrials.gov, the randomized, placebo-controlled trial will test Pfizer’s treatment or a placebo in 1,700 volunteers aged 18 and older.

The Duke Clinical Research Institute is supervising the study, which is scheduled to start on Jan. 1.

The New York Times offers readers background on the RSV epidemic and related matters.

R.S.V. is a common winter virus that typically causes mild cold-like illness in most people, but can occasionally be very dangerous for young children and older adults, said Emily Martin, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“The youngest infants have a high risk of coming into the hospital in what we call their first R.S.V. season,” Dr. Martin said. “If a child is born in the summer and they get exposed for the first time in the winter, they are at risk of having more serious disease. But many infants didn’t experience the first R.S.V. season on the regular schedule that they would have, particularly if they were born in or after 2020.”

In a normal prepandemic year, 1 to 2 percent of babies younger than 6 months with an R.S.V. infection may need to be hospitalized. And virtually all children have gotten an R.S.V. infection by the time they are 2 years old.

But many experts believe masking, social distancing, school closures and other precautions taken during the first year or two of the pandemic protected most children from exposure to the virus and other germs. “As a result, there are still many children who are less than 3 years old who’ve never been exposed to R.S.V.,” said Dr. James Antoon, an assistant professor of pediatrics and pediatric hospitalist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “The virus is now playing catch-up in all these kids.”

No good deed, etc.

From the virtual care front, mHealth Intelligence informs us

In collaboration with Mayo Clinic, Memora Health has launched the first phase of a research program focused on virtual postpartum care.

The program aims to improve communication between patients and providers through the addition of new technology to enhance postpartum care.

Memora Health, which offers digital and automated care programs, is working with Mayo Clinic to implement the virtual care program, which will provide the health system’s maternal care teams access to technology that can help them extend care for postpartum patients in the home and between clinic visits.

From the healthcare cost front, Health Payer Intelligence tells us

Dialysis increased monthly spending for privately-covered members with chronic diseases by approximately 292 percent, according to a study published in JAMA Open Network.

The researchers drew their insights from a sample of nearly 12,400 private insurance enrollees over the course of 309,800 enrollee-months. The data from Health Care Cost Institute spanned 2012 to 2019 and was analyzed from late August 2021 to mid-August 2022. Enrollees had employer-sponsored insurance for a year after starting dialysis.

Most enrollees were in preferred provider organization health plans that were self-funded. * * *

Medicare beneficiaries had much lower costs than their employer-sponsored health plan counterparts. The mean spending for enrollees on Medicare in the year after starting dialysis was $80,509, compared to $238,126 for individuals with private healthcare coverage.

“The large costs borne by private insurers to cover enrollees with kidney failure underscore the importance of Medicare becoming a primary payer after 30 months,” the study indicated. “The differences in spending between enrollees receiving dialysis with private insurance and those with Medicare are especially important given growing concerns about the market power of large dialysis organizations and recent policy proposals.”

The level of spending increase post-dialysis initiation that the researchers discovered in this study was higher than previous studies indicated.

The Wall Street Journal adds

Rival drugmakers are seeking to upend Pfizer Inc.’s dominance of the $7 billion worldwide market for pneumonia vaccines, launching what is shaping up to be one of the industry’s fiercest battles.

Merck & Co. has already introduced a new competitor to Pfizer’s Prevnar vaccine franchise, while GSK PLC and VaxcyteInc. are among companies developing shots that aim to win sales by protecting against even more strains of the pneumonia virus.

The companies are all vying for a piece of a lucrative market that Pfizer has commanded for more than a decade and is forecast to reach more than $10 billion annually by 2028, according to Wall Street analysts.

“It is kind of an all-out battle to see who can get this $10 billion that’s out there on the table,” said Louise Chen, an analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald & Co.